How Can I Tell If I Have Food Poisoning?
Following a salmonella scare involving uncooked turkey in 35 states, millions of Thanksgiving tables may soon be thankful they’re not experiencing food poisoning this holiday season. Provided you take proper food safety precautions, like washing countertop surfaces and cooking meat to bacteria-killing temperatures (typically 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher), you shouldn’t have to worry about prolonged diarrhea as part of your Black Friday schedule.
Unfortunately, sometimes best practices aren’t always followed, and a cook who fails to wash up or cook food thoroughly can inadvertently spread foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that roughly 48 million people are sickened from food poisoning annually. The signs and symptoms aren’t always obvious, though. So how can you know for sure? What are the causes? What about treatment? How long will it last?
Because vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and other unpleasantries are associated with a number of illnesses besides food poisoning, it helps to look at the timeline to examine what you’ve eaten in the past day or two to see if a specific meal may have been the culprit. “The details are the key to determine if someone has food poisoning,” says Jennifer Katz, M.D., attending physician at the Department of Gastroenterology at Montefiore Health System in New York. “What food was ingested, the time period between ingestion and onset of symptoms, the number of people who ingested the food and how many became ill, and the means of preparation and storage of the suspected food are a few of the key elements.”
Germs like norovirus, salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, and Campylobacter can be transmitted to humans due to improper hand-washing, food that hasn’t been heated thoroughly to kill bacteria, food that was improperly stored, or unsanitary preparation surfaces. If you’re experiencing vomiting, frequent bowel movements, cramps, or neurological symptoms like dizziness, it likely stems from something you’ve ingested within the past one hour to three days. Undercooked poultry, beef, shellfish, eggs, flour, and raw vegetables are common culprits, though you can ingest illness-causing bacteria in a variety of other ways: from kids, from travel, from health care environments, or from contaminated surfaces. If it’s not from food, though, it’s not food poisoning.
So how long does it last? “Most foodborne illness is self-limited,” Katz says. Your body will typically win the bacteria battle in a few hours to a few days, at which point you’ll probably just suffer some residual fatigue and loss of appetite.
Drinking water is the best treatment. Antiemetics or anti-diarrheal medication will slow down the body’s purging method for getting rid of the germs, potentially prolonging your symptoms. But if they don’t resolve within a few days, you might need the assistance of a physician. “One can consider seeking medical attention if they are immunocompromised, have fevers, bloody diarrhea, bloody vomiting, or are unable to tolerate any food or water,” Katz says. Children are more susceptible to getting dehydrated while vomiting and should be monitored closely.
Following a bout with food poisoning, Katz says you might be better off with low-fat meals to take it easy on your stomach. In the majority of cases, the illness will cause no lingering effects, save for an aversion to whatever it is that made you ill in the first place.
In short? If you don’t feel well and suspect a meal you’ve had in the past day or three was improperly prepared or stored, it’s likely food poisoning is the cause. Rest up and hydrate and you’ll be back to normal in no time.
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